The Countess of Montgomery's Urania

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The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (also The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania), published in 1621, is a prose romance written by Lady Mary Wroth (c. 1587–1651/3). The romance's most notable storyline revolves around the romance between the faithful Pamphilia and the roving Amphilanthus; it also follows a myriad of other noble and humble characters across a fictional Europe. The work is also known as a roman à clef—or a work with non-fictional elements overlaid with fiction. As the earliest prose romance written by a woman in English, the novel's publication challenged 17th-century aristocratic conceptions of female virtue, which was considered compromised if a woman's work appeared in print.

Author's biography

Lady Mary Wroth (neé Sidney) was born October 18, c. 1587, into a literary family. Her uncle Sir Philip Sidney wrote the prose romance The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia and the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and her aunt Mary Sidney was known for her poetic translations of the Psalms; her father Robert also wrote poetry and circulated it in manuscript among family and friends. She married Sir Robert Wroth (c.1576–1614) on September 27, 1604. About a month before his death on March 14, 1614, Wroth gave birth to a son, James. James followed his father to the grave two years later on July 5, 1616, and Wroth was left to mourn and manage mounting debts.

Early in her widowhood, Wroth bore two children, Katherine and William, to her cousin William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, with whom she had been involved for some time. Wroth figures Herbert in her work as the unfaithful Amphilanthus, with whom the constant Pamphilia, representing Wroth, is paired. Around this time, between 1615 and 1620, Wroth began composing the first volume of The Countess of Montgomery's Urania.[1] She also began writing her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus during this period, and Wroth dispersed nineteen of its poems throughout the 1621 published edition of Urania. After 1621, Wroth wrote a second volume of Urania, which was never published during her lifetime. Its manuscript is currently held by the Newberry Library. After the publication of Urania, records of Wroth's life are sparse and largely occupied with her debt management, and she largely retreated from court and public life until her death in 1651 or 1653.[2]

Publication history

One of Wroth's corrections in her copy of Urania, on signature 2M4v. Most of her corrections to the volume involve minor changes to spelling, or alterations to specific words or phrases, as seen here. This copy can be found at the University of Pennsylvania.

Urania was entered into the Stationers' Register on July 13, 1621 by John Marriott and John Grismand.[3] The work may have been sold at Grismand's shop in St. Paul's Cross Churchyard, under the sign of the Gun, which was used by Grismand from 1618 to 1626.[4] It was printed by Augustine Matthews, whose work has been identified through his typeface and use of printer's ornaments, which Matthews borrowed from fellow printer Felix Kingston. Parts of the book also may have been printed by Matthews' partner John White.[5]The romance is known for its midsentence ending, which seemed to confuse Matthews. Urania's first volume is divided into four parts, and Matthews ends the first three parts with a printer's ornament and a line in italic type announcing "the end of the first Booke," etc.; the final page is left blank, as if Matthews expected to receive more manuscript and finish printing the book.[6]

Simon van de Passe engraved the title page, noted by the inscription "Sim_ Passæus sculp" at its bottom left. Van de Passe had also painted several portraits of members of Wroth's relatives, including her aunt Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke. The illustration, which depicts one of the kingdoms featured in the romance, is unusual for its time in its content-specific nature. The title page's design and dedication resemble those of the Arcadia, and may signal Wroth's attempt to insert herself into the family literary canon.[7]

Wroth's involvement in publication

Simon van de Passe's title page for Urania, in STC 26051 Copy 1.

It is not known whether Wroth either knew about or gave permission for the publication of Urania. However, Wroth probably knew of Urania's publication before it was printed, though there is no record of her explicit permission. While Marriott and Grismand may have acquired a copy of Wroth's manuscript, it is possible that Wroth circulated her manuscript among her friends and family in the hope that it would be clandestinely distributed to a publisher. Circulating Urania in this manner would allow it to be published while permitting Wroth to avoid the stigma of intentionally printing her work.[8] Wroth also had a loose connection to Marriott and Grismand through her cousin William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Herbert patronized poet and satirist George Wither, whose Wither's motto was published by Marriott and printed by Matthews in 1621.[9] Additionally, in a letter to George Villiers, 1st Duke of of Buckingham and favorite of James I, Wroth does not deny knowing about Urania's publication. She also made some textual corrections to her own copy of the novel, currently in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania, which indicates that Wroth was invested, on some level, in the appearance of her work in print.

Manuscript continuation

Wroth began composing a second volume of Urania between 1620 and 1630.[10] The holograph manuscript, now in the collection of the Newberry Library, contains a variety of corrections and additions, which indicate that this was her working copy. Though the manuscript ends midsentence, a lack of concluding marks, incomplete plot lines, and blank spaces for character names also indicate that this copy of the manuscript is not final. The manuscript is missing a bifolium, eliminating part of Amphilanthus's storyline. It was likely removed after the completion of the manuscript, either by Wroth herself or William Herbert based on potentially incriminating content—the missing section may have included the consummation of the relationship between Pamphilia and Amphilanthus, which would obliquely confirm the relationship between the cousins.[11][12]

Subsequent editions

After 1621, no edition of Urania was published until the late 20th century. Josephine Roberts edited a scholarly edition printed in 1995. The first printed edition of the manuscript continuation, edited by Roberts, Suzanne Gossett, and Janel Mueller, followed in 1999.


While the reception Urania is largely characterized by the conflict it caused between Wroth and Sir Edward Denny, the two contemporary mentions of the work in print favor it. After reading Urania, Henry Peacham, in 1622's The Compleat Gentleman, names Wroth “an inheretrix of the Divine wit of her immortal Uncle” Sir Philip Sidney. Thomas Heywood's 1624 Gynaikeion: or, Nine bookes of various history Concerning Women, includes Wroth alongside her aunt Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.[13] Aristocratic women seem to have read the volume, as a copy entered the collection of the Countess of Bridgewater in 1627, and, later in the century, Margaret Cavendish references Wroth and her works in “To All Noble, and Worthy Ladies,” in her 1664 Poems and Phancies.[14]

References to the novel beyond the 17th century include Alexander Dyce's 1827 Specimens of British Poetesses, which reproduces two poems from Pamphilia to Ampilanthus and cites Urania as their source. Jean Jules Jusserand, in his 1887 English novel in the time of Shakespeare, referenced Urania as an inferior version of Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.[15]

Sir Edward Denny

Among the reasons for the court's less positive reaction to Urania was the belief that it was a roman à clef, predicated in part on Sir Edward Denny's reaction to the novel. Denny, who lived near Wroth in Essex, was an important local figure whose forefathers had worked closely with the Sidney family in Ireland in the 16th century. He believed that he was satirized in the novel as the father-in-law of Sirelius, one of the novel's many minor characters. Sirelius's story, narrated by one of the novel's many shepherds, focuses on his marriage to the only daughter of an aristocrat, whom he purportedly marries for love. Soon after their wedding, however, Sirelius becomes jealous and accuses his wife of adultery with another young lord, a denunciation compounded by his discovery of letters to the lord in her cabinet. Upon discovering his daughter's apparent betrayal of her husband, the aristocrat attempts to kill his daughter, who now requires Sirelius' protection. The attempt on her life sparks their reconciliation, and the young woman gives birth to a son and daughter before she dies. After her death, Sirelius marries the daughter of a Romanian duke, who attempts to prevent this new marriage by locking up his daughter.

As Denny saw it, Wroth figured himself and his daughter Honoria in this plot. Honoria, Denny's only daughter, married Sir James Hay on January 6, 1607. If this is indeed a roman à clef passage, Wroth satirized Hay as Sirelius, though there is no extant evidence for marital discord between James and Honoria. As Honoria died in August 1614 from complications following a miscarriage, Denny probably objected, however, to the representation of the aristocrat and his daughter; he was likely startled by the satire's implication that he threatened his daughter's life.

Denny retaliated by circulating his own satirical poem about Wroth, in which he famously calls her a "hermaphrodite in show, in deed a monster;" he also accuses her of madness and wantonness, condemning women who write fiction. Wroth, upon acquiring a copy of the poem on February 15, 1622, immediately responded with her own poem, in which she accuses him of lying, drunkenness, and venery, throwing his "hermaphrodite" insult back on its origin. Denny's February 26, 1622 letter to her claims that the court has condemned Urania, and urges her to translate palms in the manner of her "virtuous and learned aunt" Mary Sidney.[16] Though, in her letter of the next day, Wroth seems to backpedal from any "real-life" connections in Urania, she also calls for Denny to bring her accusers before her so she can fully assert her innocence. Their correspondence ends soon after this, with a letter from Denny claiming he will not engage her further, and intends to do her no more wrong. This incident may not have permanently damaged the relationship between the two families, as Wroth served as executrix of a will in 1636 along with a Denny relative.[17]

Urania and the Folger

The Folger holds two of twenty-nine extant copies of Urania. The library acquired the first of its copies (STC 26051 Copy 1) in 1938 with the purchase of the Harmsworth collection. The earliest known owner of this copy was one Ann Morris, who inscribed a prayer on the front flyleaf: "The Lord of Heaven vpon her Look But when her passing bell doth toul The Lord of heaven recive her soul Amen 1723." By 1725, a Roger Jones owned the volume, as identified by another inscription on the flyleaf. Another owner, David Phillip, inscribed his name on the back flyleaf. The Folger's second copy (STC 26051 Copy 2) contains an inscription on the front paste-down describing a debt: "26. Iunij 1635. At ye returne of this Booke I will repay 4s 6d [per] me Ellis Morgan." By the 20th century, the second copy entered the collection held at Lowther Castle in Westmorland, and was sold there at auction to the Folger in July 1937.

Urania was featured in the 2012 exhibition Shakespeare's Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700.


  1. Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010), 230.
  2. Mary Ellen Lamb, "Mary Wroth." Mary Wroth. January 2008.
  3. "The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania." English Short Title Catalogue.
  4. Peter W.M. Blaney, The Bookshops in Paul's Cross Churchyard. London: Bibliographical Society, 1990, 87-89.
  5. Mary Wroth, The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania, ed. Josephine Roberts (Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1995), cvii-cx.
  6. Roberts, The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania, cvii-cx.
  7. Hannay 233.
  8. Roberts, The First Part of the Countess of Montgomeries Urania, cv.
  9. Roberts, The First Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania, cvii-cx. In early 1621, Marriott and Grismand published Wither’s motto. Nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo ("I have not, I lack not, I care not"), also printed by Matthews. On June 4 of that year, the three were fined for its publication, and spent some time in Marshalsea Prison, along with Wither. They were released on July 10, three days before Marriott and Grismand entered Urania into the Stationers' Register.
  10. Mary Wroth, The Second Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania, ed. by Josephine A. Roberts, Suzanne Gossett, and Janel M. Mueller (Tempe, AZ: Renaissance English Text Society in Conjunction with Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999), xxv.
  11. Hannay, 264-265.
  12. Gossett and Mueller, The Second Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Urania, xviii-xxxiv.
  13. Hannay 248.
  14. Hannay 307.
  15. Paul Salzman, Reading Early Modern Women's Writing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 87.
  16. Paul Salzman. "Contemporary References in Wroth’s Urania", The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 114 (May, 1978), pp. 179.
  17. Hannay 234-241.